Born in Freike, Lebanon, on November 24, 1876, Ameen Rihani was one of six children and the oldest son of a Lebanese Maronite raw silk manufacturer, then a flourishing local industry. His father had commercial ambitions which beckoned him to America. In the summer of 1888, Ferris Rihani, the father, sent his brother and eldest son, Ameen, to the United States and followed a year later.
The young immigrant, then twelve years old, was placed in a school outside the city of New York, a few months after his arrival. There, he learned the rudiments of English. His father and uncle, having established themselves as merchants in a small cellar in lower Manhattan, soon felt the need for an assistant who could read and write English. Therefore, the boy was taken away from school to become the chief clerk, interpreter and bookkeeper of the business. The family continued in this trade for four years.
During this period of time, Ameen made the acquaintance of two poets, William Shakespeare and Victor Hugo whose writings became his first readings in the cellar. He developed a genuine love for reading and, in time, became familiar with the writings of Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Whitman, Tolstoy, Voltaire, Thoreau, Emerson and Byron, to name a few. Ameen had a natural talent in eloquent speaking, and in 1895, the teenager became carried away by stage fever and joined a touring stock company headed by Henry Jewet (who later had his theatre in Boston). During the summer of the same year, the troupe became stranded in Kansas City, Missouri and so the prodigal son returned to his father. However, he returned not to rejoin the business, but to insist that his father give him a regular education for a professional career. They agreed that he should study law. To that end, he attended night school for a year, passed the Regents Exam, and in 1897 entered the New York Law School. A lung infection interrupted his studies, and at the end of his first year, his father had to send him back to Lebanon to recover.
Once back in his homeland, he began teaching English in a clerical school in return for being taught his native Arabic language. At a later point in his life, he was once asked from which school he had graduated. He replied that he had been "a vagabond on the highway of education."
Ameen Rihani first became familiar with Arab and other Eastern poets in 1897. Among these poets were Abul-Ala, whom Ameen discovered to be the forerunner of Omar Khayyam. In 1899 he returned to New York having decided to translate some of the quatrains of Abul-Ala into English. He managed to do this while he was still giving much of his time to the family business. The first version of the translation was published in 1903. During this period, he joined several literary and artistic societies in New York, such as the Poetry Society of America and the Pleiades Club, and also became a regular contributor to an Arabic weekly, "Al-Huda" published in New York. He wrote about social traditions, religion, national politics and philosophy. Thus, he began his extensive literary career, bridging two worlds. He published his first two books in Arabic in 1902 and 1903.
In 1905 he returned to his native mountains. During an ensuing six year period of solitude, he published, in Arabic, two volumes of essays, a book of allegories and a few short stories and plays. Additionally, he lectured at the American University of Beirut and in a few other institutions in Lebanon, as well as in the cities of Homs and Damascus. He also worked, along with other national leaders, for the liberation of his country from Turkish rule. In 1910 he published Al-Rihaniyat, the book that established him as a forward thinker and a visionary. As a result of the Rihaniyat, the Egyptian media hailed him as "The Philosopher of Freike." The Book of Khalid was written during this same period of mountain solitude and was later published in 1911 after he returned to New York (for the third time) via Paris and London where he met with fellow writers and artists. The illustrations for this book, which was the first English novel ever written by a Lebanese/Arab, were provided by Kahlil Gibran. A reception was held in honor of Rihani for the release of The Book of Khalid and the president of the New York Pleiades Club crowned him with a laurel garland.
In 1916 Ameen married Bertha Case. Bertha, an American artist, was part of the Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne and Derain group who frequently worked together in Paris and the Midi and exhibited their works at the Salon de Mai. Bertha visited Lebanon in 1953 (thirteen years after Ameen's death), staying with the family of Rihani's brother, Albert, in Freike. On July 29, 1970, Bertha passed away in New York at the age of 91. She had requested that her body be cremated and that her ashes be sent to Freike to be buried next to her husband's.
Bertha Case, wife of Rihani
Ameen and his wife Bertha visited Pope Benedict XV in 1917. The Pope was heartedly interested in ending World War I and in establishing an equitable peace between the fighting armies. During that same year, Ameen met with Theodore Roosevelt, former President of the United States concerning the Palestinian case. In 1919 Rihani was asked to represent Arab interests at the Hague Peace Conference. In 1921 he served as the only Near Eastern member of the Reduction of Armaments Conference in Washington, D.C.
Rihani in 1916, the year he
married Bertha Case
During the period between 1910 and 1922 Rihani became remarkably involved politically while continuing to pursue a productive literary life. On the literary side, he continued writing and publishing in English and Arabic. Among the books that he published during that period were:
- Zanbakat-ul-Ghawr, a novel in Arabic
- Jihan, a novel in English
- The Luzumiyat, translation of Arabic poetry into English
- The Path of Vision, essays in English
- A Chant of Mystics, poetry in English
- The Descent of Bolchevism, political analysis in English
On the political front, he advocated several causes and worked tirelessly towards these goals:
- The rapprochement between East and West
- The liberation of Lebanon and Syria from the rule of the Ottoman Empire
- The countering of the rising influence of the Zionist lobby that sought to establish a separate state in Palestine
The living room in Rihani's home in Freike, Lebanon
In 1922 Rihani traveled throughout Arabia, meeting and getting better acquainted with its rulers. He was the only traveler at that time, European or Arab, to have covered that whole territory in one trip. He acquired an invaluable and first-hand account on the character, vision and belief of each of these rulers. Between 1924 and 1932 he wrote and published six books in English and Arabic related to the three trips he made to Arabia. London publishers released a circular on Rihani's travel books as having been best sellers. During that time, he also published another four books in Arabic, and delivered numerous speeches in Lebanon, the Arab world, the East and West Coasts of the United States, and in Canada ranging in topics from social reform to politics, Pan-Arabism, East and West cohesion, poetry and philosophy. During the last eight years of his life, Ameen Rihani wrote the remainder of his books, continued to be active in his political, literary and philosophical endeavors, and maintained close contact with several political leaders, poets, writers, scholars and artists.
Ameen Rihani passed away at age 64 at 1:00 pm on September 13, 1940 in his hometown of Freike, Lebanon. The cause of his death was a bicycle accident which resulted in infectious injuries from multiple fractures of the skull. The news of his death was broadcast to many parts of the world. Representatives of Arab kings and rulers and of foreign diplomatic missions attended the funeral ceremony. He was laid to rest in the Rihani Family Mausoleum in Freike.
Rihani's last photograph taken in 1940